Cemetery Ridge

by wjw on July 4, 2013

150 years ago today George Pickett sent his division of Virginians up Cemetery Ridge and did his part to extinguish the very cause for which he was fighting.  The Gettysburg battlefield is the single bloodiest patch of ground in the U.S., and features what is often called “the high water mark of the Confederacy.”  (I think the high water mark was actually left a year earlier, when the South advanced on all fronts and were rebuffed at Antietam, Perryville, Shiloh, Pea Ridge, and Pigeon’s Ranch here in my own state of New Mexico— so much for seizing the Colorado gold fields!)

Nevertheless, Gettysburg finished all hopes for the South being able to successfully invade the North and dictate a peace— from that point on, it was just a matter of grinding down the Confederacy until there were no supplies and no men left— none but the slaves, who often joined the other side as fast as they could be liberated.

And perhaps just as importantly, Gettysburg extinguished Robert E. Lee’s reputation for invincibility.

You have to wonder what was going through Lee’s mind as he sent Pickett’s unbloodied division across a kilometer of open ground against an entrenched enemy.  I think what was going through Lee’s mind was pretty much what always went through Lee’s mind.  Pickett’s Charge was an insane gamble, but Lee had been taking insane gambles ever since he assumed command.  He’d successfully attacked an entrenched enemy before, at Malvern Hill, and succeeded.  He repeatedly split his forces in the face of a superior enemy (Seven Days, Second Manassas, Chancellorsville).  He won spectacular victories, but most of his victories cost the Confederacy more dead than they cost the Union.

What isn’t generally known about Pickett’s Charge is that there was supposed to be a Stuart’s Charge to go with it— the cavalry was supposed to ride around the Union Army and charge Cemetery Ridge from the rear as Pickett was attacking from the front.  But Jeb Stuart’s attack was spoiled by none other than boy general George Armstrong Custer and his brigade of Michigan cavalry, who drove Stuart back in a brutal countercharge fought with sabers, pistols, and bare hands.  The two charging lines hit each other so hard that horses turned somersaults in the air.

As for the Union, they demonstrated how well the Yankees could fight when their generals left them the hell alone.  Grumpy, snappish George Meade had been in command for less than a week and never really controlled the Union response.  Individual federal units fought with bravery and skill, and for once their commander didn’t do anything half-witted or order a premature retreat.  While you can’t say Meade displayed brilliance, at least he wasn’t a dunce on the order of Pope or Burnside.

Those were the days when generals led from the front and not from air-conditioned trailers.  Gettysburg was particularly hard on general officers— Lee lost nine generals killed, including all of Pickett’s brigadiers, and more wounded or captured, for a total of a 38% of his generals.  The Union had four generals killed and thirteen wounded, a third of those on the field.

Afterwards, the Confederates dragged themselves home with their wounded and their way of life doomed.  But not entirely extinct— among their prisoners were a thousand kidnaped black people, who were to be dragged into— or returned to— bondage.  The Peculiar Institution was on life support, but its matter-of-fact brutalities went on.

The day after the battle, July 4, was Surrender Day in Vicksburg (which was why the Glorious Fourth was never celebrated there until the 1970s).  The climax of the Vicksburg Campaign not only split the South in two, but released Grant for brilliant work farther East, where he eventually hammered Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to death in one epic, murderous battle after another.

Four months later the President went to Gettysburg and gave the best speech of its length in the history of the world.  And because I’m not about to compete with the genius of Mr. Lincoln, I’ll just defer to him from this point:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Jerry July 4, 2013 at 6:35 am


John F. MacMichael July 4, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Great post. Thank you!

Bruce Arthurs July 4, 2013 at 10:52 pm

“But Jeb Stuart’s attack was spoiled by none other than boy general George Armstrong Custer and his brigade of Michigan cavalry, who drove Stuart back in a brutal countercharge fought with sabers, pistols, and bare hands.”

My brain now holds the mental image of Stuart and Custer having a slapfight. Thank you for that, Walter.

wjw July 5, 2013 at 1:16 am

“Narcissist Cavalier Cage Fight!”

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